The Battle for Business Ethics
Sadly "The Apprentice" Mimics Reality

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By TParadiso
April 19, 2004

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An Eerie Glimpse Into Reality

I only watched bits and pieces of the latest serving of "reality on what planet" television. Not that "The Apprentice" is more or less inane than the other myriad offerings. In reality, it was eerily closer to reality than all but the first "Survivor," a show that will remain the only pristine reality show aired.

The original "Survivor" marked the only time the participants had not been tainted by watching others "play the game." They were, like in real life, forced to spontaneously make it up. As a result, the show offered a glimpse into the true dynamics of human nature.

It was also the only cast selected without overt consideration to ratings. All subsequent shows offered the predictable demographic spread dominated by people pleasant to the eye. Without an unattractive female in the bunch, the only business environment that "The Apprentice" mimics is television news with its formulaic talking heads.

But none of that prevented me from watching the show. That decision was made before a single episode aired when Donald Trump was chosen as the show's "star." Among numerous annoying traits Trump simply isn't that good a businessman. Unless being a world-class snake oil salesman qualifies one to be considered as an elite business executive.

Mr. Trump should be commended for his personal courage however. Few people put themselves in constant risk of bodily harm as he does. Donald lives under the on-going threat of dislocating his shoulder from patting himself on the back.

Those like Trump that feel compelled to pursue a "mine is bigger than yours" approach have always raised a red flag with me. I consider myself among a minority that bothers to look past the veneer created by the media and a well-oiled PR machine. Maybe that's because it's my business and I know how easy it is to create almost any illusion.

Here's a sample of Trump's self-aggrandizements. He hails himself as New York's biggest real estate titan. Though precise figures are difficult to obtain, most experts doubt he's number one.

He claims his Atlantic City casinos are the elite casinos in the city. The reality is they have been in decline for years and have been usurped by newer, better managed properties. Oh, and by the way, they're also almost $2 billion in debt.

With the success of "The Apprentice," Trump proclaimed himself the highest paid star on television. When informed that Oprah makes a few shekels more, he later qualified his boast by limiting it to prime time. Alas, that was also inaccurate as the stars of "Friends" each make $1 million per episode. But that's Trump, and he's never let the facts stand in the way of telling the world just how accomplished he is as a businessman.

Trump's greatest accomplishment is one he rarely talks about: being born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. Donald is the third generation of a successful real estate family. He followed in his father's footsteps with a $300 million war chest at his disposal. Some 30 years later he's not worth considerably more. In a just world that silver spoon would be transferred to a different part of Mr. Trump's anatomy.

A friend of mine and avid fan of the show noted that the third generation of successful families typically squanders the family's fortune. Trump hasn't managed to blow the entire wad but he's made a gallant effort on numerous occasions. Nonetheless, I'll give him credit for being more capable of retaining the family fortune than Paris Hilton.

Trump aside, I found it difficult to get engrossed in a show that purported to subject its contestants to real-life business challenges when one such challenge was selling lemonade. Funny, I can't recall being asked to take on such a monumental task since the age of seven. I also can't recall the last time a team of co-workers consisted of individuals that had previously been fired.

I will give the show its due. In many ways it perfectly mirrored the business environment. Woman leveraging their sex appeal, unabashed lying, back stabbing, and sundry breaches of ethics that included runner-up Kwame lying to children that he was an NBA star in order to sell autographed merchandise.

What's a little lie when there are profits at stake? The answer: immaterial. Despite being admonished for such behavior no one received the appropriate "your fired" punishment. Gosh, just like real life.

And not surprisingly elite business schools are using the show as a teaching tool. Why does the old saying "the blind leading the blind" come to mind? Included in that list are Brandeis University, Georgetown University, and Boston College. At Washington University they devote an entire management class to the show. Remind me never to hire any graduates from Washington U.

A consulting class taught by Beth Goldstein, an adjunct professor at Brandeis summed it up best when they said, "The Apprentice" wouldn't take the place of textbooks or traditional case studies but it would have a place alongside them. Right these clueless classmates are. As a learning tool, the show should be put on the scrap heap along with most college business texts.

That is unless you are studying the art of self-promotion or how to successfully milk the latest television programming trends. In both cases "The Apprentice" serves and an excellent example.

As a television product the show's success is indisputable. With an estimated 27.6 million viewers its final episode it beat out the current TV champ "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" which drew 23.6 million. According to Nielsen Media Research the "CSI" number was two million less than usual, something that is directly attributable to the success of "The Apprentice." For the season, the show was ranked seventh by Nielsen. Not too shabby.

But the show's shining business achievement is as a Trump infomercial. In addition to a line of "Apprentice" merchandise, Trump has landed his own credit card and is the latest celebrity spokesman for Sprint.

Up to the very end Trump was vintage Trump. The two so-called "dream jobs" were undoubtedly chosen based upon the benefit that would be derived from the notoriety. This strategy was employed throughout the season concluding with the Atlantic City Jessica Simpson concert in the final episode.

Where the show departed from reality was in portraying Trump as a fair-minded mentor whose decisions were based solely on merit. Trump's unscripted words demonstrate the reality of his business mentality.

Upon winning, Bill Rancic chose to manage a 90-story building project in Chicago over a California golf course. Afterward Trump said, "In a way, I'm very happy he didn"t choose the golf course, cause I put someone there about a month and a half ago, and they're doing a great job."

No kidding. I bet the poor schmuck you put in that job is glad too. So much for loyalty and meritocracy.

So a Chicago high rise it is for entrepreneur Bill. Although most believe it will go forward, approvals for the hotel and condominium tower aren't finalized, The project, three years in the making is critical for Trump to establish a presence in Chicago. In Trump style, at 150-stories, it was originally slated to be the city's tallest building. That didn't sit well with the natives. After 9/11 it became moot.

Despite the project's importance, Trump puts a neophyte in charge. Brilliant! No wonder he's where he is today. Bill's been given the title of president but Donald is still working out the details of his responsibilities. Not surprisingly, he's already hedging.

"It will be an important job," Trump said. "He [Bill] will be a project manager."

Maybe I'm being overly harsh on Trump and the show. The winner will attain something most senior managers strive a lifetime to accomplish. In lieu of being fired for being totally useless, Bill's going to be "kicked upstairs" to a cushy highly paid job where he can't do any real damage. Again, just like real life.

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